Saturday, March 4th
Seoul, another wintery place that seems to motivate people to build a solid infra structure. Most cars one sees are Korean made and foreign brands are really the exception. Public transportation is quite cheap (around 1$) and beer relatively expensive (a bit more than Canada). The cost of living here for one day would buy 3-6 days in Southeast Asia (a cheap room is 60$/night). English is relatively well understood and spoken. TV has English channels and Korean TV has English language education programs. I guess the U.S. military presence has had its effect. All the major food chains from Burger King to Krispy Kreme Doughnuts are represented.
Monday, March 6th
Finally a nice sunny day that shows this place in a much better light. I went and booked my flight to Tokio and had lunch downtown. Afterwards I toured the main palace and visited the Korean Folk Museum.
Tuesday, March 7th
James and Jonathan picked me up at the airport and graciously put me up at their beautiful apartment in downtown Tokyo. It's an hour by train from Narita airport to Tokyo.We walked around town, went to the "central park" which is home to a beautiful Shinto shrine amidst an immaculately kept forest of old trees with a creek running through it. Tokyo is a wonderful city. People are very polite and elegant and they took me to the most amazing old style Japanese restaurant I have ever seen. Tokyo is right up there with London and maybe beyond as the most civilized city I have ever been to. Nobody honks their horn. When you walk into a big store when it's raining, they have plastic sleeves for your umbrella so you don't splash around. You leave them as you depart. Taxi driver's wear uniforms and taxi doors open and close automatically. Every major street has a rippled guide rail built into the sidewalk to guide the blind. Traffic is chaotic yet orderly at the same time. Throughout my travels in Asia I have gone up and down the ladder of sophistication of each respective country but here I'm at the highest rung.
Wednesday, March 8th
A beautiful sunny day, the warmest so far this year. The famed cherry blossoms are starting to appear among others. James and I took a long walk around town and I'm starting to get my bearings.
Thursday, March 9th
James and I went up the Tokyo Tower, built similarly to the Eiffel Tower but bigger and looked at the city from 250 m up. They give you a brochure with all the major landmarks on it in every direction and it's very conducive to get one's bearings. We finished the day at another great restaurant with a view of the city where I had some sea urchin sashimi.
Friday, March 10th
Jonathan and James are flying to Hawaii today for 5 days and graciously are leaving me their apartment. By now I've learned the names of some local streets and stations, which is imperative if you want to move around on your own in this city.
Saturday, March 11
I took advantage of the nice weather and toured around the city, visiting the palace grounds, the Budokan and Ginza, the fancy shopping district which boasts the most expensive real estate in the world in the world's most populous city. The subway system is vast and easy to get around in and people that have colds or the like are as considerate as to wear surgical masks, covering their nose and mouth.
Sunday, March 12
Tokyo is an endless metropolis to walk around in and there is always something new to see. It is very high tech and clean. Food is affordable when you know where to go but rents are high. To sum up my impressions on the other places I visited everybody should know that most people don’t speak English very well and if you get stuck and have to ask for directions then be aware that many Asians are very unlikely to say: “I don’t know.” To them it is sort of a loss of face so they rather point you in any direction or tell you anything rather than admit that your guess is as good as theirs. Therefore it is paramount to do your research in advance. People will also tell you all kinds of BS just to get your business. So again, research is crucial. Thailand is the most developed place in Southeast Asia and even though traffic is as chaotic in Bangkok as can be anywhere else and given the fact that they drive on the left side, they still have obligatory side mirrors, helmet laws etc. which are non existent in e.g. Cambodia, where motorbikes less than 100cc don’t even have license plates. Even though they drive on the right side, any car is a good car in Cambodia and you’ll find some have the steering wheel on the right side and some on the left. Traffic laws, if they do exist are not being enforced so it’s basically a free for all. There are 30 000 new paraplegics every year in Vietnam due to traffic accidents according to a Swedish doctor I met. - In order to run a business in Thailand you need a Thai partner and if your business takes off then they can squeeze you. In Cambodia you do not need a Cambodian partner but you can only lease a business for a variable time period. Vietnam let’s you bring in money but doesn’t let you take it out and also has legislation where fines can range from let’s say 50000 dong to 50 000 000 which leaves room for and encourages corruption. Otherwise one can have a lot of fun once one overcomes the fact that as a whitey you are a walking billboard for a potential buyer of anything. Once you get used to that and can deal with it you can find people quite charming and funny once you get beneath the veneer. I saw my first obese oriental person on the terrace during breakfast and just as I was pondering this she asked for the bill in a broad American accent. Ex patriate Vietnamese, most of them living in America or Australia, three of whom I met so far, will make it impossible for you to pay for anything when you go out with them. It’s almost as if they’re embarrassed for the poverty and hustle that a Westerner encounters when visiting their native land, especially the double standard that exists when paying admission to museums etc. Locals pay 1$ and foreigners 5$ or more. There are signs of rapid growth. Vietnam was just recommended as a 10-year buy by Merrill Lynch. Vietcom Bank is about to hit the Singapore or Hong Kong Stock Exchange and is eying IPOs in America, making it the first Vietnamese Corporation to do so. - You also see a fair share of backpacker tourists on a tight budget, especially coming from Eastern Europe. They are giving the Vietnamese a run for every dollar. Welcome to the free market economy! The Vietnamese people want to be part of the WTO in the hope that the present tariffs on automobiles (more than 100%) will be eliminated. There are 3 million motorbikes in Saigon at present. Can you imagine them switching to automobiles because out of a sudden they’re affordable? Pollution and ecology problems will get worse before they get better. China leads the way with a total “make the money now and pay the consequences later” mentality. I flew over parts of China on a clear day and saw no trees at all. All the big rivers originate in China and when they get overused and polluted, which they will, Southeast Asia will suffer. China is about to dam many rivers that Cambodia is still dreaming about damming. This will trickle down to affect water flow, fish stocks, agriculture etc. and will have a potentially huge impact. The prospect of timely cooperation and coordination between these countries that are already unorganized within themselves looks bleak. On the positive side Japan shows that with good law enforcement and education one can have a good quality of life in even densely populated areas, although it involves more or less ravaging resources somewhere else.
Tuesday, March 14
After having spent a couple of days here and having the apartment by myself I find myself switching into home mode and reluctant to travel further to Kyoto or Mt. Fuji etc. I'm flying home tomorrow and I'm wondering whether I've run out of steam or if it's the reservedness of the Japanese people. As opposed to Southeast Asia where you almost have to beat them off with a stick, the Japanese will not be curious drinking buddies. They don't need your business and they're not particularly interested in foreigners traditionally. The country is exceptionally beautiful and interesting but there is a language barrier and it is still a low of a cool 5 degrees. I've been content to read the "Eyewitness Travel Guide of Japan" and going to eat Sushi at this great restaurant I discovered. The Sushi passes on a conveyor belt around the central bar. You have a hot water spout in front of your seat and can make all the green tea you want while picking sushi on color coded plates that are tallied when you leave to configure your bill. I ate what would have been 50$ worth of sushi in Montreal and paid 7.50$. It's the Tuesday special. Yesterday it was 12.50$ and the sushi is top grade sea urchin, fatty tuna and some other wonderful concoctions that are their unique creations.
The thought about coming home fills me with quiet reflection, anticipation and a touch of lonesomeness. I'm ready!!!!